Barton Clinic contributes to landmark case

Clinical impact

A 16-year-old locks himself in a hotel storage closet. He refuses to come out when ordered to do so, and when police officers attempt to remove him, he comes out swinging.

He tries to hit and bite them, and he also throws glass cleaner, which goes down one officer’s throat. The resulting charges include aggravated assault on a peace officer. Even as a juvenile, it’s a serious charge.

Emory Law Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic students have represented hundreds of minors since 2006, but this case led to a June 1, 2022, Georgia Supreme Court decision that Clinic Director Randee Waldman says is an important one for all young Georgians — the right to an insanity defense.

“It has been the practice in Georgia juvenile courts to not permit young people to raise an insanity or delusional compulsion defense,” Waldman said. “This decision changes that for all young people going forward.” Four Emory Law Juvenile Defender Clinic students worked on the amicus brief Waldman filed in November 2020: James Farnan 21L, Nancy Jin 22L, Michelle Montgomery 21L, and Raerani Reddy 21L.

Previously, if a minor committed an offense during a mental health crisis but was later found competent for trial, they could still be found delinquent for the underlying act even if they could not distinguish between right and wrong at the time of the offense. Waldman chose to file an amicus brief for In the Interest of T.B., a Child because of its compelling facts and a chance for students to gain appellate experience. They collaborated with Emory Medical School Department of Psychiatry fellow Sindhura Suryadevara for a section of the brief dealing with the prevalence of mental health disorders among young people. Dr. Sarah Y. Vinson, a forensic psychiatrist on the faculty of both Morehouse and Emory’s medical schools, also joined the brief as principal consultant for Lorio Forensics.

“This is an issue I’ve had my eye on for a long time,” Waldman said. 

T.B. had previously been diagnosed with Unspecified Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorder, and Substance Induced Psychotic Disorder, but a forensic psychologist found that following four months of treatment, he could understand trial and assist his attorney, making him competent to stand trial. His attorney filed a motion seeking to raise an insanity defense. When the juvenile court judge denied that motion, she sought appellate review and the appellate lawyer reached out to Waldman who filed an amicus brief with the Georgia Court of Appeals.

“I instantly offered to submit an amicus brief,” Waldman said. “Via that approach, you get to raise all of the policy implications at play.” The case was transferred to the Georgia Supreme Court because a constitutional challenge was raised by the defendant.

Waldman’s brief sums up her argument this way: “If adults can raise an affirmative defense of insanity, it is capricious to disallow juveniles that same opportunity. Doing so robs those most vulnerable, psychologically impaired children from the most logical defense for their circumstances. It exposes them to punishment that is neither tailored to their person nor just in its administration. It is imperative for the Court to rectify this oversight and extend this dispositive safeguard to juveniles.” 

It’s unknown whether the Barton brief influenced the Supreme Court because it wasn’t mentioned in the opinion written by Justice Verda M. Colvin. 

“It’s always hard to know what ultimately influenced the court, but I’d like to think that the broader context was helpful,” Waldman said. “Our brief covered two areas, the prevalence of mental illness in young people and a constitutional argument around fundamental fairness and due process. In the end, the court used a statutory construction analysis to find that the defense was permitted by the existing code, so it did not reach the constitutional argument.”

The brief did, however, influence the prosecutor’s office. In the intervening years, an election resulted in a new district attorney in Chatham County, Georgia, where the case began. While the original prosecutor objected to the insanity issue on appeal, the new district attorney reversed course and “joined in seeking the right to raise these defenses,” Waldman said. In doing so, the D.A.’s office cited the Barton brief. The passage reads: “Given the social and psychological support regarding child psychology, brain development and mental illness, as so clearly laid out in the Barton Center’s amicus brief, it seems only right and even more pressing, that the insanity defense be made available to youthful offenders as well as adults.”

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